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In the early days Norling would often be called to an accident scene to document the evidence--location, relevant road signs, skid marks. "I learned pretty early on, though," he said, "that 30 feet of skid marks were a whole lot more interesting as a photograph if there was a wrecked car sitting at the end of them."
Judging by Norling's photographs from this period, the roads around Bloomington in those days were mean streets indeed. Much of his early work predates the construction of 494 and 35w, and his archives are crammed with documents of head-on collisions along dark two-lane roads littered with impossibly tangled vehicles, auto parts, and dead bodies.
As Norling’s pastime grew more demanding, it became a family affair. “When that police scanner went off, it didn’t matter what time of the night it was,” Dave Norling told me. “In a matter of minutes all of us were up and in the car.” There were occasions when the family would beat the police to the scene, which, Irwin’s daughter Pat told me, was considered bad form. From the start June Norling took some of the pictures herself, and as soon as the three kids were old enough to hold a camera they started shooting too. Most of Irwin Norling's early work was done with a big Speed Graphics camera, a cumbersome, wholly manual piece of equipment that could hold only two pieces of film at a time, one exposure on either side of a Bakelite holder that needed to be flipped between shots. The hot flashbulbs had to be changed after every exposure.
"Eventually we had police radios and scanners in pretty much every room of the house," Mike says. The middle of the Norling children, Mike now lives in Virginia and is recently retired from a career as a photographic analyst in the military. "We were rockin' and rollin' 24-7. Dad literally slept with a scanner under his pillow, and the emergency tone on those radios was like an alarm clock. It would go off and we'd all run out in the dead of night, and we'd be changing out of our pajamas in the car. The first guy out of the house got to ride shotgun with Dad."
June and the kids would tote the gadget bag, shuttle film back and forth to the car, and generally serve as Irwin's gofers. Irwin had a collection of light-sensitive solenoids and would send the kids out to ring an accident scene. "We'd spread out 50 or 60 yards around the scene," Mike recalls. "And when Dad would shoot, his flash would set off all these solenoids, so we could illuminate a huge area."
"We'd all take pictures," Dave says. "But we were really there for one reason: to be Dad's legs and to help out with whatever he needed."
The experience of accompanying their father to car accidents, fires, and crime scenes in the middle of the night made for a curious childhood. All of the Norling kids confess to having witnessed breathtaking carnage at an age when most of their peers were still playing with dolls and toy soldiers. Mike recalls that he was six years old when he shot his first fatal accident. His older sister Pat, now a research librarian at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, says she didn't see her first dead body until she was 10, and Dave admits that he saw and photographed so many casualties that he can't even recall the first one anymore. "They just kind of all blurred together after a while," he says. "We all understood from a very early age that this was an important job. It was just a way of preserving evidence and documenting a moment, and in time it just became sort of matter-of-fact. You had to learn to disassociate yourself emotionally from the scene or you couldn't do it."
Irwin Norling professed to be unfazed by the grim tableaux he often saw through the lens of his camera. "I was solely interested in what sort of information the photos needed to convey if they were going to be of any use to the police department, or in the event that they ended up as court exhibits," he said. "I tended to keep my distance, but if a close-up had some bearing on the story, I'd get it. If there was an open beer can in the front seat I took a picture of it. When I looked into a camera, I was looking for what was there. I wanted to tell the truth, and it wasn't my job to get in the way or try to get too cute."
June Norling never learned to drive, and daughter Pat never developed much interest in taking photos herself. Mike and Dave, though, caught the spirit from their father, and before they were old enough to drive they would accompany Irwin or (when he was at work) race around Bloomington to accident scenes on their bikes. By the time they had cars of their own--outfitted with police scanners and CB radios, of course--the boys were often meeting their father at accident scenes, or even beating him there. With so many family members in on the hunt, the actual images started going out to newspapers bearing the ambiguous credit "Photo by Norling."
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